Sigi Koko is the principal designer of Down to Earth Design, which she founded in 1998 to help her clients manifest their dreams of living in a natural, healthy home. She works exclusively on projects that are natural, energy-efficient buildings, on the forefront of sustainable design. Every project functions in synchronicity with its environment, relating to seasonal cycles of sun, wind, and rain to provide natural heating and cooling primarily from passive (free!) sources. Her clients enjoy an average 50% reduction in total energy usage compared to conventional buildings. She uses a palette of building materials that ensure healthy indoor space and minimal environmental impact.
This episode is the first episode from a two hour conversation with Sigi Koko. This episode is mostly focussed around the design of a natural home. We talk about how she is able to design a home that meets her clients dreams... even when they don't yet know them!
Episode 71 is the second half of this conversation and focusses more on materials, myths and women in construction.
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Jeffrey Hart 0:00
Welcome to building sustainability podcast with me your host Jeffrey Hart, aka Jeffrey, the natural builder every fortnight. Join me as I talk to designers, builders, makers, dreamers and doers. Exploring the wide world of sustainability in the built environment by talking to wonderful people who are doing excellent things. Hello, and welcome to episode 70 of building sustainability podcasts. This week, I am delighted to bring you to Conversations with Ziggy Coco as the CoCo is a name synonymous with natural buildings. And anyone who has been in the talking natural homes Facebook group will have no doubt seen her work, and also seen her tirelessly answering questions. Ziggy is an architectural designer and natural builder who loves to get her hands in the mud and teach Oh, so many people, the joys of natural building. We actually talked for a solid two hours. And honestly, I still had a page of questions left. So I had so much talk about with with CEE and it was an absolute delight. So I've divided these podcasts into nice hour long chunks. This episode is kind of a background and really focused on the design process, how she goes about getting from the initial client meeting to a design on paper. The next episode 71 focuses a bit more on materials. We talked about the myths in natural building, and also women in construction. Before we get into the podcasters, a little bit of podcast updates. Firstly, if this is your first time listening, make sure you hit the subscribe button and head back and have a listen to some of the other episodes. There's full of natural building goodness and great design tips. I've been sent a fantastic opportunity by Timber development UK, they are running a design challenge you'll be designing a real life building with a budget of 1.6 to 1.9 million pounds. So let me read you the blurb. We are looking for students and 2021 graduates from UK universities, any built environment subject to register by the end of February to join a team and design a passive house community centre, predominantly from timber that sits lightly on the site producing more energy than it consumes. You need to register by the 21st of February that's 2022. On the charter website, there's a link in the show notes you can self select your team or we can help you and then you submit your entry by mid June and there is a live judging and awards on the 22nd of July at the new model Institute for Technology and Engineering in Hereford. There are cash prizes and certificates for all valid team entries. And it sounds like a great thing to get involved with. And if that wasn't enough, all of the students get free software included. So you get use of Trimble's SketchUp studio portfolio design phpp And the ACBS co2 calculator. So access to a whole load of high end stuff seemed like a great competition. I know they get lots of entries every year could be a good thing to get involved with. Also, in news of upcoming events, I am teaching a spoon carving workshop, if you're local to the Bristol area and available on the seventh of May 2020. To then come along we will be carving a spoon from a log using just simple hand tools or saw an axe and a couple of different knives. So yeah, if you want to learn all of the techniques and how to do it safely, I really just enjoy a wonderful craft that opens up so much I get so much in my life from from being part of the spoon carving community. So yeah, come along and join in. I will put a link to that in the show notes. And what else to say i Yes, we've got a few lovely lovely patrons to say thanks to as always, upfront apologies for poor pronunciations of names. We have got Robert greaves, who also left a fantastic review on iTunes. So thank you for that, Robert. We've got an eco hedged us hazardous. Sorry Eniko we have got Elizabeth Shawn, and we have got Anthony, Greg gorsek. So thank you, all of you for contributing. Antony and Robert have gone for the building sustainability superhero level, which means they are giving five pounds a month and in return they are going to get a hunk of spoon kind of fitting for today's intro. So thank you all to those who have joined up this month and all
So just thanks to everyone else that supports the podcast, it genuinely does mean this podcast can exist. So thank you. Okay, that is enough for me. I will give a little tiny house update at the beginning of Episode 71. And I will be back very briefly at the end. Enjoy Ziggy Coco.
Sigi Koko 5:19
So I am Sigi Koko. I am and an architectural designer and I design exclusively natural buildings. And I've been doing that for almost 25 years. Right?
Jeffrey Hart 5:45
And where are you based?
Sigi Koko 5:46
I am in the United States. And I am in I live in Pennsylvania, which is sort of East Coast us. But I work throughout the whole region of the East Coast. Do you know what until quite recently, I didn't actually realise you're an architectural designer, I thought you were just a builder.
Jeffrey Hart 6:07
Because I think most of the things I'd seen were were things you'd built. So it was a nice surprise to find out.
Sigi Koko 6:14
Ah, so the way that I work is, so the first building the first it was a house, it was an addition to a house outside of DC. And I realised so I had these drawings. And then I knew a lot about natural building. But when I tried to hand them to someone, they were like that straw bale wall, what does that mean? So I instantly realised that a, I need to be hands on and be I need to teach. So that's how I started teaching for one, which I'm actually quite introverted. So that was a real big. Stressful. And so I was very hands on with that one. So it was basically the builder and I built it together. Yeah. And I happen to really enjoy being hands on. But I also enjoy the design. So I usually do something hands on on every project. And I always offer to teach natural building workshops on every project
Jeffrey Hart 7:25
before that first project. Had you had you done a hands on work before?
Sigi Koko 7:30
Well, I mean, I've, my mom would say, I've been hands on since I came out. Yes. But specific to natural building that was I would say, and I have an art background. So my undergraduate degrees in fine arts and sculpture specifically. So that's very, you know, tactile hands forward. And then when I went to architecture school, I was kind of the weird one that, you know, grew grass on her roof and snipped it with scissors and, you know, built the walls out of clay instead of, you know, chipboard and foam board. And so I don't, yeah, so in that sense, yes. And then from a natural building standpoint, specifically, I read everything I could get my hands on which at the time, you could literally read everything there was out there and joined one of the I think it was the first East Coast natural building colloquium in 1996. And so I did that, and I felt like I am home
Jeffrey Hart 8:51
naturally, I mean, why How did sort of natural materials, get into your? Yeah, how did you sort of come across them?
Sigi Koko 8:59
Yeah. So when I was in when I went to architecture school, because I saw a photograph of a Antonio Gaudi building when I was seven years old, and it made me weep. Because it was so beautiful to me. Do you remember which building it was? It was a photograph of the blue tiled spire that's at the bottom of the hill in the park?
Jeffrey Hart 9:26
Yeah, I think I know the one
Sigi Koko 9:27
Yeah. Yeah. And it was just the spire and I was like, that's what I want to do. I want to build buildings that make people cry and, and so from seven I was like, architect, and then when I went finally went to architecture school I had one of in the first year I had a professor who was teaching sort of world history of architecture. And the way she approached it was teaching. She would show indigenous buildings from around the world and say why they were built the way they were. So, you know, you could see from the building, oh, this area floods. Oh, all they have they don't have wood here, they only have stone and clay. Oh, this is an arid climate and they collect their water and everything is about cooling, you know? And, and that's I was like, Oh, yes. Okay, we that's what we're doing. Yeah. So to me that instantly if a building makes sense for where it is I'm hooked, right? So from the materials to the climate, you know, the the reaction to the climate? Yeah. So to me that that was the most logical thing I had come across. And so to me, that's natural building.
Jeffrey Hart 10:50
Yeah, I fully agree was was that quite a sort of revolutionary concept when you're at school was that? It sounds like you sort of said you were the one trimming the grass on your roof. So other people weren't, weren't as, as inspired by the vernacular design?
Sigi Koko 11:09
Yeah, no, no, I think I, that it touched me. I mean, she teaches that every year. And it's not. So I went to the University of Texas in Austin, it's not like they're spitting out natural builders, or natural architects, you know. So it just for me, the way that I grew up, and with my sensibilities, and my mom's German, and, you know, very practical, right, and efficiency, and, you know, so that's my mindset. And to me, that natural building is all of that, and also tactile, and also user friendly. And all of a sudden, people can meaningfully participate in buildings. So it's got this whole like, like human like, well, humanitarian, for one, but also like this human interaction, that cannot happen with conventional construction, unless you have a particular skill set, which is not most people. And so if all of a sudden, the person like kids, their kids can participate in construction meaningfully build walls, right. That's a paradigm shift. Right. And, and I don't think everyone looks for that. So I think when I was in school, and I was touched by that, that's about you know, who I am and how I grew up, not necessarily about the schooling, right? It just happens to be that that was the one piece that sent me off in this direction, right? So
Jeffrey Hart 12:40
yeah, yeah. I, it feels to me, like sort of society is moving away from kids playing in the dirt and getting hands on. And do you agree with that?
Sigi Koko 12:51
I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I feel like there's. So I have taught, for example, I have gone to schools, and like, the whole sixth grade class builds a bench, you know, and they all say each class, like goes through over two days, you know, and they all participate. And, you know, they usually at least one kid is like, Wait, your job is to play in the mud. And their head explodes that that's possible, you know, so I, you know, it's not like any of them go and can't touch. You know, I think in all the years I've taught kids, I've had one person who didn't like to touch mud, and that was because they had a per touch sensibility. Right. So I don't know. I don't know.
Jeffrey Hart 13:45
I think that's coming from, I think some friends of mine teach sort of art, and they go around and teach art. And they, they said that sometimes they go into schools and people are, they don't want to get mucky. They don't want to kind of really get involved and they are quite standoffish. Yeah, maybe that's a particular group. They were teaching another. I've just extrapolated that to be. That's how kids are now.
Sigi Koko 14:15
Yeah. And it may be cycling back. Right. So maybe there was a period of time. You know, I feel like there's sort of cyclical, cyclical parenting. So it's possible that we're back to hands on again or something. Yeah, no, but
Jeffrey Hart 14:30
Yeah, certainly. So I'm interested to know about your design process. And how do you I guess, sort of extract an idea from the clients and then how we are what's what are the important things that you then take forward?
Sigi Koko 14:45
So I first I have a fairly rigorous intake with clients. It's important to me that I connect with someone
Jeffrey Hart 14:58
so you kind of interviewing them.
Sigi Koko 15:01
Yeah, I had a, I had a client one once who, near near the end of our design process together, she said, You know, I just have to tell you, I thought we were interviewing you at that first meeting. But now I realise you were interviewing us too. And I was like, and, and it's never personal, it's just to me, it's important that we can communicate well, and that we're on the same page. So it's important to me, for example, that communication is always respectful like that Mrs. may be obvious, but that natural building and sustainable issues are their top priorities. Right? Obviously, they want, you know, usually homes, right, they want a home that's livable and beautiful, and works for them and all of that, but any architect can do that. But if, if they're going to compromise on some of the natural building bits, like, if we take straw bale out, I don't want to do it. Right. So I, I wouldn't want to quit on them. Because they, you know, had a decision shift. So it's now at the point where I only people only approached me, because that's what they want. But there was a period of time where I had to weed that out. And also size. So if something's quite large, and it's just, you know, a couple in one kid, I don't want to do that project, either, because I will keep trying to make it smaller, and they will keep trying to make it bigger. And yeah, you know, we're going to clash. So they should work with someone who's happy to make it as big as they want it to be. Right. So yeah, there's things like that. So, but once I've sort of connected with someone, I do what I call collaborative design. And to me, what that means is, I am, it's a pretty hefty education. For them, of what the materials are, the physics of why they perform, why the windows are placed, where they are, where the sun is, how that works, how their heating system works in Collaborate, so that by the end, they understand why they made every single decision. And I have empowered them to be able to make those decisions, because they have a knowledge base. Right. And so, and then by the end, they when people come and see their house, they can explain it, which is also cool to me, right? Yes. Yeah. So so it's, it's, it's, I, it's probably more intense than most architects do, I usually do. For small projects, it's about eight meetings. And for larger project projects, it's 11 meetings. And, and I, you know, we sort of the beginning, it's always concept, right? And I always give them at least three to five different ideas, so that we're not just taking one idea and editing the heck out of it. Right? If they have multiple ideas, they can react, oh, I hadn't thought of that. Or, Oh, what if we do this? And this over here, you know, and combine, right? So they feel free to express what works and what doesn't more if they have more ideas, because nothing is precious now.
Jeffrey Hart 18:34
So I assume sort of quite early on those. Those are quite quick, loose kind of ideas. Not not too detailed. I think that's that's a really big thing. I mean, I studied product design and that the year it's so difficult not to just follow your first idea. Because you you played with it in your head and then you went yeah, it's brilliant. And so to force yourself out of that, and we're you know, to, to introduce clients, different ideas is really, really important.
Sigi Koko 19:05
And what I find actually is, too, is easy. And then often the third one's harder but the third one is once it cracks it's almost always better and it almost always opens up the fourth one, right. Yeah. So once you get past that sort of preciousness it cracks open of what the possibilities are.
Jeffrey Hart 19:27
Yeah, I am so i This house is is mine and I designed it and it's a tiny house here. It's It's small, but I was deliberate in my design process that I just sort of threw in random ideas here. What if this what if that what if the bedroom was downstairs? What if, you know, deliberately trying to shake up my design process? Just so that I didn't stick to that one? One first thought?
Sigi Koko 19:54
Perfect. Yeah, that's brilliant. Yeah, exact but exactly that that is yeah. because you, you don't know until you draw it right. If you're always holding it just in your head, it's hard to move the parts around. But if you sketch it out different ways, you see where the tight points are. And you see why something does or doesn't work and what the possibilities are. Yeah, brilliant. Yeah, it's very well done. Nice.
Jeffrey Hart 20:18
Thank you. I didn't come here to, you know, to be gratified, I guess.
Sigi Koko 20:26
Is your tiny house mobile? It is yes. Yeah. Ah, so you have the whole like weight issue? Oh, my
Jeffrey Hart 20:33
goodness, yes, I do. That's a thing that I've never ever considered while building here generally is kind of more mass is better, you know, thinking and that sort of terms. And then to have to have a spreadsheet of the weights of everything. And you will if I have this, then I have to sacrifice that. Because wait. Yeah. It's a very interesting challenge. Is it when you've have you've ever done tiny houses?
Sigi Koko 21:00
No, but I have the daughter of one of my clients is, is going down that road, and she asked me to help her. So yeah, I will get to try to support her in that right now. So yeah, she's right now making the decision if she's going to do something that's roadworthy, and consider all the weights of everything or, you know, straw and clay and yeah, and then it'll sit one place. Yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 21:30
Yes, deciding whether you're, you're gonna get itchy feet and, and move on later. Because I mean, for me, I, I feel like I'm settled here. But I have that nagging. But what if you know, you don't know the future?
Sigi Koko 21:43
Ray? Right, right.
Jeffrey Hart 21:47
Anyway, where it was so sidetracking, and talking all right. So what are the some of the questions that you're asking your clients? What is it you're trying to get out of them in those early meetings,
Sigi Koko 22:01
so I give them homework before we even begin, right? And we review that homework before, before I've taken any money from them before we have a contract, write anything. And there's sort of three parts to the homework, but I let them do whichever, one two or three that they want. Because different people are comfortable communicating in different ways. So the one that most people do is collecting images. And I tell them, like, Don't Don't think too hard about it. If it moves, you collect it, and then we'll figure out why it moves you later. And what I do with the images, is I it's almost never one particular image. It's always the thread that carries through the images, right? So like two quick examples, I had one client who a healthy, over 50% of the photos were bathrooms, right? And they all had blue tile. And I was like, Well, I know what Tyra will do. And obviously, your bathroom is really important to you so right. Because if half her photos were the bathroom. We're gonna spend some time designing the perfect bathroom, right. And then I had another client who every single photo was visible wood structure left natural state, so just oiled with white plaster, like hand plastered every single photo. And I was like, Okay, I know you're. And so I mean, those are easy ones. But you know, you're kind of looking at the threads that people carry through. And sometimes it's sort of the quality of light, or sometimes something quite specific, you know, like a big fireplace or something like that. Yeah. It's usually it's usually a feeling that is evoked. That is a thread. Yeah. And then I tell them that back, right. So the whole point of reviewing it with them is I tell them what I see. And if I'm off base, I say don't work with me, because I don't get you. Like, only think about working with me if what I'm saying back to you resonates right. So and then the second exercise is a writing exercise. And I asked them to project into the future. Pretend the house is done. And write something it could be like a morning ritual or, you know, coming home at the end of a day or something, you know, your cup of tea, I don't know, whatever it is. And many people don't do that because they're afraid of exposing writing to other people. Right. There's that fear. But when people do that, it's often really revealing Write about sort of what life wants to feel like. Right? Yeah. Yeah. And then the last one is Pattern Language I give the Pattern Language. Just read that homework. Yeah. I mean, I tell them to get it from a from a library and I say, you know, read the read the list of patterns first and just write down the ones and then go read them. And and about a third of people do that one. Yeah. And then I give them an option to do there's a another book called patterns of home that is sort of distils the pattern language into sort of 10 patterns. And they're visual. So it's a little so if somebody's more visual than because Pattern Language, it's very intimidating book. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And so that one also sort of just, it clarifies, okay, these are are really important things that are no brainers. And, you know, deal breaker, yeah. And then we, once we start designing together, so then I distil that into just like a two page document and send it back to them as sort of this is now our vision, bullet list of things that we're going for. And some of them are, you know, a bedroom that fits that king bed, you know, or whatever, but some of them are, the quality of light is important, and connecting inside and outside so that you feel like you're outside in winter when you're stuck inside, you know. So it can be either experiential or functional. Right? Yeah. And then we're both on the same page of what we're shooting for.
And then it always begins with relationships and spaces. Right. So, you know, is it important that the bedroom is upstairs or downstairs? Is it important that when you first walk in the house, What room are you in? Right? Mm hmm. Interesting. Yeah. You come in through a vestibule. You hang your coat up, you take your boots off, or whatever, and you step inside? Are you in the kitchen? Are you between the rooms? Is it all open? Right? So things like that?
Yeah. And then it starts to get more and more nitpicky as you go. Right? Yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 27:13
Oh, fantastic. I like that. I really like the second exercise the kind of imagining imagining yourself in the space. Have you have you read Rob Hopkins book?
It's called from what is to what if, and it's it's based on how to sort of solving the climate crisis by using imagination. And he does an exercise, which is, you know, imagine yourself in 15 years time, we've solved climate crisis, you know, now, what, look around, what what does the world look like? And it's sort of removing those barriers of what we already know, and the sort of tramlines that we're stuck in. Yeah, and letting you imagine all the wonderful things, so I don't hear any traffic, you're sort of actually feeling it?
Sigi Koko 28:07
Well, and it sounds like it lets you imagine something positive. So now that goal is desirable, as opposed to the fear of change, right?
Jeffrey Hart 28:20
Yeah, absolutely. So we touched on patterns there. Is that something you can you can talk a bit more about? In terms of for people that maybe haven't read a pattern language?
Sigi Koko 28:35
So Pattern Language was a thesis project from some students at you see University of California Davis, that got kind of out of control and turned into a book and then then a book series? Religion, I think it's definitely my religion. And what their goal was, was to explain why when you step into a space, it feels the way it does. And literally break that down into specifics. So there's this whole psychology of architecture. So some architecture is meant to intimidate you. Right? And some architecture is meant to embrace you. Right? And as to just gross examples, you know, so when there's a grand staircase and a huge door and pillars that are two storeys tall, like that house is meant to make you uncomfortable before you ever knock on the door. Right? You are less than right. versus you know, an intimate porch that three people can stand on and a little bench for you to sit down and say small window where you can see the person and they can see you before you ever open the door. And then space when you walk in for you to know where to put your coat, it's a hook, it's not a closet that you have to now open their doors, you know? Right. So there's this architecture of welcome. Welcome into my home and an architecture of an I'm just making them extreme, but of course, yeah, right. And, and they tried to articulate what those pieces are quite specifically, right. And then the way the book is laid out, is you don't necessarily read it linearly. I did because I was obsessed. But that's not really the point of the book, it's, it's meant to be experienced as a web is how I think about it. Right? So the very beginning just has a list of all the patterns. Right? It's just one, one phrase, right? So it could be you don't like from above? And you don't know what that means? necessarily, but or couples realm? Oh, well, what's that? Right? And then you read through them? And just if it's intriguing to you write it down? Now go read it. And each one has, you know, two to three, sometimes a little bit more pages. That explains what is light from above mean? How does it make you feel? How does it create? What type of space does it create? If there's an energy? Impact? It might say that right? So if it has to do with passive solar, right, and we'll talk about that a little bit. Yeah. And then at the beginning and the end of each pattern, it lists related patterns. And so then you read those, and anything intriguing. Right. So now that's why you're on a web? Yeah. And then you distil it into the patterns that speak to you the most, right? So people with kids would have things that are kid related versus, you know, if it's a couple and they don't have kids, and they're older, and they're definitely not going to have kids and they wouldn't do the ones that are kid related. Right. So things like that. But yeah, and to me, it's quite it's, it's brilliant in the way that it it's a way of communicating about space. I don't want to say this. It takes you out of, I need a spot for my kitchen pot to I want my home to feel like XYZ.
Jeffrey Hart 33:05
Okay, so away from practicalities and more into feelings.
Sigi Koko 33:09
Yeah, the experience you have, right? So sitting in a corner in the winter with the sun streaming on your face. Right.
Jeffrey Hart 33:22
Sounds nice. Right?
Sigi Koko 33:23
And you don't necessarily know what's in the room, right? Or where things are organised, right, though, and you do that too. But those are the things people are comfortable telling you. Right? Yeah, I have this many clothings right clothes, right? I have this is my kitchen. This is what I need room for in the kitchen. Right? That that's easy, and easy to solve for. But what do you want it to feel like every day? And how do you elicit that from someone? You know, that's that's what Pattern Language opens up. Right? Is that whole conversation?
Jeffrey Hart 34:00
Already have the patterns it's been a while since I've I've read it but 30 of the buttons kind of negative? Are they you do they describe feelings of discomfort? Because I always think of it as you know always creating cosy spaces.
Sigi Koko 34:17
I think they talk about I don't know actually I haven't like gone through each pattern in a really long time but my memory of it is that it will talk about why something if the if you do the opposite why that feels the way it does, but it doesn't I don't think there's necessarily oh if you want a ground if you want to off put people think it does that. Yeah. Okay. I think the whole the whole goal and they ultimately there was a community in Davis, California that was the whole community was built based on Pattern Language. And since it was built, it has been fully occupied. And when someone sells the house it sells within a day, right? Yeah, yeah. And so the whole goal was to create spaces that are universally warm and inviting and livable and comfortable. Right? So yeah,
Jeffrey Hart 35:22
I was I was reading something. The other day, she was talking about how she grew up in England, and there's lots of very thick walled houses, and so that She then moved to the States. And, and she was saying, you know, in the States, people don't understand like the sitting in the window nuk. And sort of looking out, because, you know, they're generally sort of sitting in, in big sort of cuboid boxes, with very thin walls. And so I that the Pattern Language always sort of brings to mind little, little spaces that are quirky and might not be found in a very conventional, you know, four by two, eight by four sheet house.
Sigi Koko 36:06
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. And then I think, I think in that, at least, I don't know how it works in the UK. But in in the United States, for the most part, there is a disconnect between who builds the home, and who is going to live there. And radical disconnect a builder or a developer builds the home. And their goals are profit. Right? So what is the least I can spend to make it look like they should pay the most? Right? They don't care about energy efficiency, they're never gonna pay an energy bill. Right? They care that it looks grand enough that someone thinks it's expensive and right. And the person living there has goals about energy efficiency and livability. And you know, that the space feels good. Right. And because of that disconnect, I think there's I don't know, I, I feel like that's, that's the biggest issue, at least in the US, right, is that if we brought that back together and let the people who will live there make decisions, right? I'm always working with people like that. But that is not the usual right. Most people do not hire someone to design a home for them. Right? Or figure out how to design a home themselves. That is not a normal thing. Yeah. So yeah, I think if we close that disconnect, I think houses would look radically different here. Yes. You know, yes. And then that there's that whole notion of, okay, well, let's, let's build, let's design for resale. So I get that question. Sometimes like, oh, well, we should do this because of resale. And I'm like, no, no, don't do that. And, and to me, and this is where the builders come in, too, right? You're designing to this notion of what someone might want. Well, who is that person? It's this abstract. What a fad I, like I don't like describe who that person is. And it's a generic, it's not anyone. And now you're designing something specific to a generic that isn't anyone? Well, no one's going to respond to that. Right. Whereas if you design something that specifically meets your needs, and makes you feel at home, guaranteed, someone walks into that space and goes, I feel at home. Right. So that whole notion of, you know, designed for resale like no, this is your home designed for you. You know, so I don't know, I feel like there's all of these other disconnects that that put us in these sort of stick framed fragile homes that are classy, and you know, versus the owner built homes,
Jeffrey Hart 39:06
is that most of your clients are then are they are they self builders in the way that they can actually build it themselves? Or are they just people that are having a home built for them?
Sigi Koko 39:17
It's about a third, a third, a third. So about a third of the people want to like start to finish build their home. And the way that I work is I stay with them through construction. So they can call me anyone working on their home can call me or email me any time and I will answer questions through all the way through construction. So they're never like just left hanging, right. So with an owner builder, there's always more dialogue, right? Yeah. And usually with them if they've never built a home before I tell them to get support. So work with a builder at least through framing. Yeah. Right, and then hire a plumber and hire an electrician. Right? So
Jeffrey Hart 40:04
good advice. Yeah.
Sigi Koko 40:07
And do you know, focus on the natural building bits and all of that. The second third is this sort of hybrid where they want to do something, right. But they either don't have the time or they're intimidated, they don't want to sort of build their own whole home. And so they will hire a builder. And sometimes they'll just participate in a workshop, and then whatever doesn't get done through the workshop, they take it from there. So, you know, they're sort of they participate to some degree, but they're not taking on the whole thing. Yeah. And then about a third or, you know, let the builder do it.
Jeffrey Hart 40:51
And then what sort of as a sort of markets in the US was, I get the impression that more people are building their own homes, over where you are. than in the UK? I think the UK self build market is is tiny, miniscule. Yeah, do you? Do you have a sort of sense of, of how many people are?
Sigi Koko 41:14
No, no, not really, I think what I mean, we have this sort of, you know, rugged individualist thing in the US, right? And, you know, our, our history is, you know, push out native people and build our own space and take it over. Right. So, very owner builder, Ranchi, you know, hands on history, for good and bad, but what that where that comes into legality of building homes is almost everywhere in the US, there is some method for an owner to design and build their own home within the building permit structure. And in some places, if it's under a certain size, you don't even need a building permit. And in some places, that size is quite large. Like I think this has changed. But when I was in Texas, it was 2000 square feet, which is what 200 Yeah. Or metres. Yeah. Yeah. I think that's changed now. But you know, that's basically almost every house, right? You didn't need a permit. So I am pro building permit. But yeah, so there's a method for doing owner builder everywhere. Almost everywhere. Right. So
Jeffrey Hart 42:38
yeah. So in the designs, are you spoke a little bit about natural light? I mean, how, how sort of important is that?
Sigi Koko 42:48
Very, yeah. So I have on an intake form, I have this sort of little mini questionnaire, like, what excites you the most? And one of the questions is ample natural light, right? I have yet to have someone not check that off.
Jeffrey Hart 43:06
If they didn't check that, would that be? Sorry? We're not working together?
Sigi Koko 43:10
No, but if they didn't, I, my guess would be when they collected photos, it would be in the photos. Because we are solar powered. Right? We need the sun to feel good, right? Both physically, literally. Right? That's how we generate vitamin D and that stems, depression and all of that. But you know, it's warmth in winter. It's what grows our food. It's, you know, it's our lifeline, right, like sun and water. That's, that's most of us. Right? Yeah. You know, it's the rare person who's I would like to live in a dark cave. Right? That's not most people, right? Yeah, so to me natural and balanced, natural light. So I think there's a way to bring in lots of light and have it not feel comfortable. Right. So to me that there's this there's actually a pattern of In Pattern Language where it talks about having light from two sides of a room, right? And that, so if you have, if you have, let's say you have two windows in a room, if they're both on one wall, the quality of light is not as good as if one is on one wall and one is on another wall, as in opposite walls, opposite walls, or even 90 degrees from each other. Okay? Because instantly you're balancing the light as it comes in and you're reducing the glare as it comes in. And you have more opportunities for sun to be streaming in, right instead of just being one directional. And so all of these other things happen. And if you open those two windows that are on different sides of the room, you immediately create positive and negative air pressure and To therefore airflow, so there's all of these inside benefits of okay, I thought I was just making better light, but oh, I also got ventilation out of it. And every time you get more than one benefit out of a solution, it's to me a better and better solution, right? Yes, yeah. So that natural light is
Jeffrey Hart 45:19
fantastic. It was one of the things I really struggled to design for this house is how how big is too big on Windows. You know, I didn't want it to feel dark. Yeah, I wanted to have a roof like you can see above me. I knew that I wanted that to be north facing. So it didn't create hard, hard light coming in from the sun. And that was pretty much all I knew about, about Windows. And I just had to kind of feel my way through and I made a little model was that I sat out in the sun and kind of poked my phone into the model, so I could see what the light was looking like. Yeah,
Sigi Koko 46:00
no, that's brilliant. Yeah, yeah. Yeah,
Jeffrey Hart 46:03
it's, yeah, a nightmare. Well, not a nightmare. It was. It was a challenge that I throughout the build, I've sort of gone. Did I do that? Right? All that's too small. Now all that's new to Rick, I guess I don't know, when it's you. It's a more complete thing.
Sigi Koko 46:21
But I think that's, it's it's like, it's like anything the first time you do it, you your learning curve is much higher, right? So figuring out what you know, and what you don't know, and how can I know what I don't know. So okay, I'm not sure about how the light is going to play. So I'm going to build a model, and I'm going to shine the actual light into the model in the orientation that it will be right. And, and be a little scientist to figure out like, Okay, well, what's that going to look like? And and at least approximate it. Right? Yeah. And then make the best decision, you can, and then you're going to live there. And you're going to learn, okay, this worked really well, good job. And you're going to figure out why. And then things that don't work, you're gonna figure out why. And if you ever did it again, it would be better. And then the next one better, and the next one better. So it's just the nature of things. One of the first things I tell clients is, your home is not going to be perfect. Right? That's not feasible. It's not like there's always going to be things that you you second guess it's just the way it is. Yeah. So
Jeffrey Hart 47:29
yeah, I suppose yeah, there's a lot of pressure about that kind of this is my forever home. Everything needs to be exact, you know? I guess that's that's unhealthy, isn't it? Well,
Sigi Koko 47:40
it's for most people, they do it one time. Right. I mean, I do it more than once, but they do it one time for them. And so there's this huge emotional weight on it. And it's usually the most money anyone's spends on something. So there's a financial weight on it. And you combine those two things, and it's this like, volcano of dude has to be just right, you know. And so we get we get close, you know, but I always say like, oh of perfection, because that's not yeah, that's,
Jeffrey Hart 48:18
yeah, that's, that's good. There's a thing that I often think I've talked about on the podcast before but I went to a Swedish museum about five Viking longships. And they said that they always put one deliberate mistaken because they believed only the gods were perfect. And I always like that, because when I, you know, I'm building something. And I do a little mistake. I'm like, there we go. There it is. I love that. I love that. Yeah. So biophilic design, is that something you're you're sort of consciously putting into into buildings. Do you think that just comes about with with the materials?
Sigi Koko 49:02
Yeah, I would. It's something I love and something I'm inspired by. But I I would it's unfair for me to say that it's conscious.
Jeffrey Hart 49:12
Yeah. Okay. I mean, yeah, looking at your, your, your photos of the builds. I mean, there there's lots of rich biophilic elements in there, your trees in the round and a natural edge timber and your beautiful things that I mean, I I trained in on the west coast in Oregon, and you, we always talked about you this, this feeling of natural builds, and yeah, why do they feel so good? And, and then suddenly, I discovered biophilic design just last year, and it was suddenly Wow, there's science behind behind that feeling. And you know, there are studies and there is understanding. It's, yeah, it's a wonderful thing to realise.
Sigi Koko 49:58
Yeah, yeah, I would say that that is more about sort of how my my personal appreciation for materials and, you know, I feel like in most cases, the less you do to manhandle them or woman handle them, the more they feel like what they were, right, so if a if a tree doesn't get hewn or milled, and it can stay a tree, right? All of a sudden natures in my home. Right, yeah. So absolutely, yeah, it's more it's more from that piece of that sort of tactile Enos and just a respect for what nature gives us.
Jeffrey Hart 50:41
That's lovely. Are there any sort of red lines that you weren't cross in terms of your if a client says I want this? It's definitely going to be in here. I guess in terms of design, and maybe materials,
Sigi Koko 51:00
there probably is, but I can't think of what that I've never made a list. I mean, I try to minimise concrete, right. So right out of the gate, it's, it's, it's challenging to completely eliminate it here, because the alternative is so expensive, or requires a very high skill set. So I just tried to minimise it. So, you know, one can argue whether that's the right approach or wrong approach, but that's sort of my approach. Like if they wanted all the walls to be concrete, I think that, but I don't think they would come to me, because that's not you know, I think at this point, they're weeding themselves out.
Jeffrey Hart 51:45
Yes. They're not gonna look at the body, your body of work and say, I'd like that. But in concrete.
Sigi Koko 51:50
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So I it's a hard question to answer, because I'm sure yes, but i don't i i struggling to articulate it. Maybe I haven't had enough coffee yet. But
Jeffrey Hart 52:05
I think maybe it's that it's it's a it's sort of a question that asks you to focus on negativity, and I get the impression that's not the way you work.
Sigi Koko 52:14
For the most part. Yeah, that's true. Yeah. Yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 52:17
So yeah, there you go. Bad question from me. No.
Sigi Koko 52:23
I, something I'm gonna think about, actually, so yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 52:28
And then we've talked about a little bit there about efficiency in use. That I feel. So when I was training in Oregon, I feel like if embodied energy was kind of held in slightly higher regard than efficiency and use, so kind of in use energy. It felt like a lot of the focus was getting the closest natural materials. And that was, that was good. Yeah, this was this was 12 years ago. So it's, I'm sure it's an ever moving goalpost. But how sort of conscious are you of creating efficient buildings?
Sigi Koko 53:11
To me, the biggest Energy Association for certainly for most natural buildings, but probably for most buildings is how much energy do they use over time? Because that's an annual forever number. And you can, if it's a it's a if it's like, say the concrete right, so if I'm saying yes to concrete, which a lot of natural builders will scream about, right. But I'm not doing concrete floors, right. It's just a grade beam, right? So there I am justifying it. But so there's a there's a, you know, definitely an embodied energy associated with that. And there's a huge co2 footprint associated with that. So right out of the gate, I will use concrete that has 40% Less cement in it. So fly ash and coal slag, so that we can offset some of that co2 footprint. So trying to make better decisions about what that concrete is. And then once it's there, that impact is done. And now it gets amortised over the whole life of that building. Versus if I build something that requires like it's all mass, and so it has no installation, and it requires much more heating than it would like sure you can get comfortable but you're using a lot more to do it. And for more months of the year to do it. That is every year you have that unless you go on vacation in winter, right. Or if you design something that in order to be comfortable, you need air conditioning instead of eliminating the need for air conditioning, right that is every summer. Right so to me It's it's not the only thing but to me that I will I personally will hold that in slightly higher regard. But that said, I'm always looking for the material that is available from the building site first. Yeah. Right. So we dig the footer, we save that clay, we build the walls, we build the floor, we plaster the walls, right? And that's always number one. And then okay, then it stems out from there. So if somebody says, you know, I want a certain, I don't know, like, I rarely use bamboo. I use like bamboo for stakes, because we have it everywhere. Here. It's invasive. But bamboo products I rarely use, even though those are sort of touted as green. Because almost all of them use formaldehyde glues, except for their soy product line. And I think it comes out of Korea, but I could be wrong. But they're all from for us. 6000 miles away minimum. That's halfway around the world. Right. So to me, I'm going to use that. Less often. We're only if that's the one aesthetic that works for somebody. Right? I will try to talk to them about Okay, so here's the impact that you're buying into. Are you okay with that? Right? And even for us, cork, right, so that's 3000 miles away? Yeah. Right. Which is for us the same as California. But I also try to not see if I can bring in a recycled glass countertop from Brooklyn, which is, you know, 200 miles away, I'm going to do that, as opposed to California, which is 3000 miles away, right? So it's not that I ignore embodied energy and transportation. And to me, there's a whole lifecycle of materials where you look at, you know, what is the environmental impact of acquisition of the materials? And then what is the manufacturer? And how far did it come? And is it safe to instal? Is it is it create? Does it promote a healthy home in every way? And then what happens to it at the end of its life, right. So that's always part of the conversation. And I, we have a whole meeting about materials with, with my clients and I, I make them understand lifecycle analysis, because I'm cruel and heartless. So So those things don't get ignored. But I also asked them to prioritise what's important to you. And then I am always holding that energy over time peace, and I won't let them stray from that. Oh,
Jeffrey Hart 58:00
how wonderful was that? Goodness, I had such a nice time talking to see. So if you've enjoyed that, then head straight on over to the second part of our conversation, which is episode 71 is focused less on the design aspect and more on the materials, common myths, and we talk about women in construction. If this was your first building sustainability, hit the subscribe button to get all future episodes. And if you've got a moment, I'd love it. If you could leave a review. There's a link in the show notes of just take two minutes or makes a huge, huge difference. Thank you. Thank you. Really appreciate you listening. Hope you're having a great day. Until next time, bye
Sigi Koko is the principal designer of Down to Earth Design, which she founded in 1998 to help her clients manifest their dreams
of living in a natural, healthy home. She works exclusively on projects that are natural, energy-efficient buildings, on the
forefront of sustainable design. Every project functions in synchronicity with its environment, relating to seasonal cycles of sun,
wind, and rain to provide natural heating and cooling primarily from passive (free!) sources. Her clients enjoy an average 50%
reduction in total energy usage compared to conventional buildings. She uses a palette of building materials that ensure healthy
indoor space and minimal environmental impact.
Sigi translates each client's vision into a unique design that reflects their personality and lifestyle, while responding to the
surrounding landscape and climate. Sigi's uniquely collaborate design process provides a high level of information and support
that encourages her clients to engage fully throughout design and construction. She also teaches natural building workshops
that empower her clients to contribute creatively during the construction of their own home.
Sigi Koko holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Texas at Austin, where she learned fundamental design
skills. After earning her degree, she spent two years building homes to learn the practical side of how buildings are constructed.
This in-the-field experience helps her communicate well with builders. She spent two years completing her architectural
internship for HOK (Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum) in Washington, DC, where she provided "green building" expertise on
many projects. She also created their Healthy & Sustainable Product Database" and contributed to several HOK publications,
including the document now published as The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design (published by Wiley & Sons). Her
experience at HOK gave her the opportunity to explore extensive green building research and taught her how to create highly
detailed drawings and documentation.
Sigi has designed over three dozen strawbale buildings in the mid-Atlantic region, including Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania,
and West Virginia. All projects have received standard building permits. She has worked with building officials statewide in
Maryland to gain approval for strawbale construction and rubble trench foundations. Her projects have been mentioned in the
New York Times, featured on HGTV, and she has been featured in numerous print articles, including the Washington Post, the
Baltimore Sun, and Progressive Engineer.
Sigi Koko is nationally known for her expertise in sustainable design and natural building, she has lectured extensively on these
topics, and has written articles for numerous publications. Publications include Interior Graphic Standards Chapter on Green
Building Materials, "Five Steps to Keeping Strawbale Walls Dry" article in The Last Straw Journal, and "Rubble Trench
Foundations - a Brief Overview" article in Building Safety Journal magazine.